Mind the Gap: Social Psychology, not Social Psychology, and the Spaces In-Between

logougI spent  two days last week, underground, at a conference on visions for the future of social psychology at the London School of Economics, UK  #LSEsocpsyvision. Scrolling back through the Twitter feed, and reflecting on the event, I realize I am more struck by what was not said, than I am by what was discussed: the liminality of the spaces in between. Here I want to take the opportunity to reflect on that.

What is social psychology anyway?

Looking back – I realize that no one sought to define social psychology per se. In fact, no one mentioned what first comes to my mind when someone mentions the term social psychology. Its text-book definition, or the one I learnt, courtesy of Allport (1954) as a first year undergraduate.

Social Psychology is the effect on thoughts, emotions, behaviour of the real or imagined presence of others.

Alongside talk of transdisciplinary successes was an often careful comparison-drawing with what social psychology is not. On the one side, it is not, it was argued, sociology – on the other – it is not neuroscience. We work, the consensus seemed to me, – at the meso – or human level. Social psychology is about the individual in society. The individual in the group. Interestingly, when clearing her office space last week, my office mate found her final year exam paper in Psychology in the 1970s; one of the questions read:

Since sociology is the study of social systems and biology is the study of the body, including the brain, there will come a time when Psychology is no longer needed. Discuss.

She would have been asked to write on this for three hours. There was, over the course of the two days, much talk of boundaries and borders. What counts as British social psychology? Where do the edges of social psychology lie? I was reminded, in this discussion, of a sermon one given by the minister of my church, Rev. Dr. Carla Grosch-Miller. In it, she argued that, instead of putting careful fences up around Christianity, to protect, for example, the sanctity of male-female marriage, (do note:as a church we fully support same-sex marriage) we should aspire to be like the cattle-herders on the plain. Their cattle have no fences. And they are not needed – because the cattle are drawn to the well-spring in the middle of their land. They stay there. As long as we are life-affirming (as a church) people will be drawn to us. So, I would argue, it should be with social psychology. While we have something useful to offer, we needn’t worry about fences – people will be drawn to us to enrich their explanations of social phenomena, and we will both thrive.

Exodus from Social Psychology

The painful question facing us then, and voiced by Sonia Livingstone, @Livingstone_S is why  people rapidly exiting social psychology, in leaky pipeline style.  There are very practical reasons, of course, in terms of career opportunities, and funding – but what about beyond those? This is where I must admit to suffering from identity confusion. I research social identity theory. I research group processes, diversity, and social exclusion. I research bullying and friendship. Yet I have only once published in a social psychology journal. What I find instead, is that my research enthuses developmental psychologists, educationalists, the press. I have been told my findings are not news-worthy enough for social psychologists.

This Autumn, I have been warmly welcomed to a theology conference, where I will present on group support for youth who have been socially excluded for being LGBT+. In spite of this, I still would like to think I am a social psychologist. But the novel interest, it seems, in my research, is found in taking social psychology elsewhere: in offering it in explanation for social phenomena away from the traditional social-psychology box to the spaces in between. I found I came up with oodles of new ideas for my research at a talk in the School of Education. I have made links with collaborators there. Does this make me less of a social psychologist?

Faces and Voices of Social Psychology

To borrow and re-work a phrase from Steve Reicher, I research social psychology, not because I am interested in social psychology, but because I am interested in the social phenomena I study. Passionately so. Research is me-search, after all.  I want to seek good collaborations to research those phenomena well: I want to take social psychology out to other disciplines, and to bring other disciplinary explanations back to it.

Something else that was observed at the conference, by Georgina Randsley de Moura @GeorginaRdeM :  at least one of the panels was made up entirely of middle class, white, older men. Where were the younger voices represented? There was a Twitter hashtag associated with the event – and much of the younger voice could be heard there – indeed several more eminent social psychologists argued that Twitter is the premise of the young. But, I don’t think it is. I learnt how to tweet academically from Dorothy Bishop @deevybee – and I don’t think she’d mind me saying that she is not a young academic. Moreover, on this occasion, it allowed me to bring other voices to the discussion – those of a civil servant, for example. Research-wise, it allows me to disseminate widely. What about altmetrics was a way forward for REF2020?

Social Psychology of Movement 

It was suggested, and perhaps the exam question attests, that we  could have sat in that room 20 years ago (age-permitting) and had that discussion. What’s changed? I would argue that we could not have had this discussion back then. For one thing, the way that we view classic studies, and investigate the phenomena now, their context, has changed – dramatically so. But more than that,ultimately, even though we are all social psychologists, we are all different, with different visions, as Caroline Howarth concluded. And that’s got to be a good thing. Again, to return to Steve Reicher, he argued that there is a need for greater academic debate to move us forward. Again this concurs with a theological book I read, called You are Mine (2009) by Alison Webster, @Alisonrwebster. In it, she states:

Most of us find it easier to come to terms with the other by making him or her like ourselves; by refusing to open to experiences that are not our own. …[but] there are few things we all share. p. 19

Webster’s book is a call to embrace differences, even those that superficially seem like commonalities; to be open to one another – and to develop shared understanding from this. I would argue that, having exposed our differences as social psychology researchers and theorists at  #LSEsocpsyvision. they would be a good place to open academic debate, and to enrich the content of social psychology.

Maybe, now that we are back, flung wide  across the UK, this debate would take the form of an online (Twitter?) chat – or communal blog – that included or potentially included, everyone’s voice. I realize on nearly finishing this piece and in true l’esprit d’escalier, that, ironically,  blogging was not mentioned at the conference. …

Nonetheless, the discussion was passionate, and engaging and I thank the organizers for that 🙂 and for finding a place for me there. As I look to my future research: I hope it can continue to retain an element of the social psychology that was at its roots at the beginning of my research career.


Guest Post: EEG, Eye-Tracking, and Evaluation: Finding a way into Psychology

Last week, Lora, a student from Year 12 at a local sixth form, visited me in the Department. I asked her to blog about her experiences. This is what she said:

I decided to search for work experience in Psychology because it is a new and exciting subject for me that I have found extremely interesting to study throughout my first year of Sixth Form. I am also considering taking on Psychology at university next year, so I felt that this experience would be valuable.


Today was my first day and I had a mixture of nerves and excitement, the latter proving more dominant. After asking several people how to find my way to the correct building, floor and office, I was successfully directed to Siân. Once there I: introduced myself, was given my very own work-space (a whole room in fact) and was shown the rest of the department.

My first task of the day involved 48 questionnaires for a visit to school tomorrow. I had to fold, staple, sort and proof-read (correcting any errors I found) . Two of the piles did not have a specified condition on the front, so Sian gave me the job of working this out. Now, I hadn’t finished quite yet as I needed to have two piles (one male, one female) of questionnaires and they needed to be randomly sorted. Another task I had to do was create an Excel document and write out all the questions. Not such a mammoth task seeing as the questions were the same. Accomplishment – a feeling which was felt on numerous occasions throughout the week.

Other things I got out of the day involved: reading social development papers, obtaining two massive, free text-books, because there was a departmental book clear-out, and beginning to use and get to know the statistics program SPSS. Nice people, a nice subject and free resources to keep – what a nice way to start off the week.


child school

Image from brookes.ac.uk/psychology

This morning I continued to help Siân input data she had collected the previous week into SPSS. Fortunately, we managed to finish this before we set off to collect more data. The primary school may have been local, but the commute took us about one hour. We arrived in plenty of time so that we could set up in ease and I could be given instructions on what I was to do. The children filled out the questionnaires very quietly and the school made us feel welcome. In my opinion, the classtime and the day were successful.


eyetrackThe day that Siân and I managed to input all of the data from the previous day into SPSS –accomplishment, once again. After this I was lucky enough to participate in an experiment for a postgraduate student’s research project. The experiment involved a structured interview, filling out questionnaires and then several stages of activities. The project focused on the link between ‘Eye Contact and Social Anxiety’, (i.e. some research suggests that people with high levels of social anxiety make less direct eye contact than people without social anxiety).

Later on in the day I attended a departmental seminar which took form of an IT workshop on Open Access and the REF. If I have to be honest, all the information didn’t really make sense to me because it was something I had never come across. So, halfway through, I migrated to reading Siân’s online blog. And here you are reading my first piece which has been published online.

My final job of the day was to make a start on sorting out a massive pile of evaluation forms from the Friendship Workshops that Siân had conducted in 2014 and 2015 so that they were ready for data input.


On Thursday morning I attended Siân’s “Shut Up and Write” session. This session is a great way to be productive by just sitting down and getting on with your work, in silence. I occupied myself in drafting a Methods section for the research we did in school on Tuesday. Siân was kind enough to lend me her PhD for the session so that I was able to use the method section as a template. I was also given a whistle-stop tour on how to use SPSS to  get basic statistics. We were particularly interested in the means, standard deviations, and correlations.

Moreover, we had lunch with Sarah and several other colleagues from the Psychology Department – everyone was really friendly. And for the rest of the day I continued work on the hundreds and hundreds of evaluation forms, and I managed to finish this job! Need I say the feeling again? (Hint: the word begins with an A.)


Image from brookes.ac.uk/psychology

Image from brookes.ac.uk/psychology

My last day. The week has flown by. But as idioms go, time flies when you’re having fun. A good sign, surely. And I will be back again at the end of next week with my school in order to attend the Psychology conference. They haven’t got rid of me that fast!

So, for my last day, as Sian was away at a conference, I was cared for by the lovely Sarah and met even more colleagues. I was able to write this blog piece, do some transcribing and visit the EEG lab. Transcription consumes a lot time. One has to listen to the audio file, type what each speaker is saying, listen carefully to understand what they are saying and do this hundreds and hundreds of times. I had a go at one today and I didn’t even get through the full file. The interview was about 35 minutes long and I only got through 10 minutes! I guess it’s not too bad for my first go, but I didn’t get that full accomplishment feeling…

EEG stands for electroencephalogram. It is where the brain’s activity is recorded to help diagnose or manage certain conditions. Brian cells continuously send one another messages and signals that can be picked up as small electrical impulses from the scalp. This process of picking up and recording the impulses is known as an EEG. I was shown the swimming-hat-net-like-cap, made up of electrodes, which a participant would wear. Apparently, baby shampoo is put on the participant’s scalp in order to aid conductivity. How bizarre. However, the procedure is painless and the participant should feel comfortable throughout.

Overall, this week has been a valuable experience that I’m sure I will never forget. I really do appreciate everything that was done for me. The week has shown me the opportunities that await me and things I could be doing in future. For anyone reading this that enjoys Psychology and is considering the subject, I highly recommend doing work experience in this field. So that’s it for this blog piece. I hope it has been as successful as my week…

Very well-accomplished, blog-post, Lora – you’d make an excellent blogger in Psychology, if you fancy that later on…. I should also say that Lora was fantastically helpful to me in getting us ready for school, remembering things when we were at school, and in dealing with the aftermath of the visit. She also reminded me why I love working in Psychology so much. Here’s to the next generation of students …